In an essay on rules for a happy marriage, the late humorist James Thurber argued that husbands and wives should stifle any urge one might have to insult the other in public, saving their best zingers for the privacy of the dwelling place.
“Thus, if a man thinks the souffles his wife makes are as tough as an outfielder’s glove, he should tell her so when they are at home, not when they are out at a formal dinner party where a perfect souffle has just been served,” he suggested.
By the same token, the wife should not regale party participants with tales of her husband’s clumsiness, such as the time he locked himself in the children’s rabbit pen and couldn’t get out. All parties must end eventually, Thurber cautioned, “and the husband or wife who has revealed all may find that there is hell to pay in the taxi going home.”
While on my daily trek over hill and dale earlier this week, the Thurber essay came to mind as I contemplated the holiday party season that is upon us. It occurred to me that guests insulting one another may well present an opportunity for hosts and hostesses to practice their diplomatic skills between now and the waning hours of New Years Day, when holiday festivities presumably will have pretty much petered out. But it likely will not be the only circumstance they will face that calls for tact and discretion.
One problem might concern guests who have overstayed their welcome by half, long after a party that began in high spirits has lost its buzz. Some etiquette mavens advise that the hostess confronted with such a dilemma should simply make a show of stifling a yawn while glancing at her wristwatch, the theory apparently being that unless the stragglers are unusually obtuse most will catch the drift of things and call it a night.
To my way of thinking, such an approach shows a lack of imagination, since any sleep-deprived dolt who possesses a timepiece can easily pull that one off. Still, it would seem to beat flicking the house lights off and on, announcing last call, stacking the kitchen chairs and running the vacuum cleaner under the guests’ feet.
When it comes to hosts and guests, “neither one is superior to the other, and both have their venal aspects,” Esquire magazine’s John Berendt once wrote in a column I clipped. “Even the most gracious host is, by temperament, somewhat domineering and egotistical; all guests, no matter how appealing, have a touch of the parasitic about them.”
Some years ago, with Berendt’s commentary in mind, I rang up a friend who knew a thing or two about the hostess gig and asked her how one should go about getting rid of parasitic guests who never seem to know when the party is over.
The first step, she advised, should be to “tactfully remove the refreshments,” a ploy that I remember thinking would surely have worked with most crowds I have run with. Remove the grub — tactfully, or with a brass band blaring and acrobats doing cartwheels — and the premises would have been vacated in jig time, guaranteed.
If push should come to shove and the lingering guests aren’t being reasonable about their departure time, the veteran hostess suggested that the party host should simply say something such as, “We just have to bring this thing to a close because I have to go to work in the morning. Perhaps next time we can make it later.”
I once attended a holiday party where the host, burned once too often by post-midnight hangers-on who were undeterred by the yawn-and-check-watch routine, tried this approach, albeit in a manner slightly more direct than implied in my hostess friend’s example.
Waiting for a lull in the action, he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, let’s go to bed so these nice people can go home.” And off to bed they went. Problem was, the party raged on without them until dawn had broken in the east and the last guest to leave had been charged with winding the cat and putting out the clock.
Not surprisingly, there never was a “next time” for guests to see if they could again outlast their hosts. Which was fine with all concerned, for once was enough.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is email@example.com.